There’s a moment, very early on in M-Corp, which set my mood for the entire episode. It’s a very small exchange, I’ve got to admit.
KRYTEN: Now, eat up. It’s time for your present.
LISTER: Ah, I don’t need a present, Krytes. I’ve got everything I need.
KRYTEN: Sir. You’ve got nothing.
And with this single joke – with its bleak matter-of-factness – I relaxed. I relaxed in the same way Back to Earth made me tense up, with its tedious ironed sneezes and unearned graveside pathos. Unfairly or not, I’ve had enough problems with post-1993 Dwarf that each episode needs to win me round anew. Many never manage it. Just make me laugh, dammit.
M-Corp not only won me round. It’s my favourite Dave-era episode, by a considerable margin.
Red Dwarf does Black Mirror is the obvious hook for this episode, of course: a satire on modern life and technology. Although I would describe it slightly differently. I’d say this episode was Black Mirror… with a studio audience. And that gives the show a whole different texture than Black Mirror has. It’s doing what so many of my favourite TV programmes have done – grabbing genres, formats, or mediums, and smashing them together to see what happens. Knightmare combines computer games and television. Deal or No Deal combines game shows and soap opera. And Red Dwarf, of course, combines science fiction and audience sitcom. So: a Black Mirror episode done as audience sitcom? I’ll very much take that, thank you. That’s something new.
And it gives the episode a fascinating tone. The key scene is where Lister sees the rest of the crew disappearing. We go from vibrator jokes, to the crew disappearing in the most amusingly timed manner possible, to Lister… alone. There is light and shade here – sometimes at the same time. In many ways, it’s the bleakest Red Dwarf has ever got. And yet the audience reaction not only stops us tipping into complete despair, but creates the most delightful sparks in allowing us to laugh at one of the worst things which you could ever imagine happening to a human being.
LISTER: Cat? You stealing my food? Get the hell out of here… I didn’t mean that. You can have the food, just come back. Cat? Cat?
Not for the first time this episode, I found myself wanting more. I’m reminded of Linehan and Mathews having fun in Father Ted with everyone simply sitting around having a thoroughly miserable time with Father Stone – to the point that they were annoyed they actually had to start the plot. I think I could probably have watched Lister moping around the ship for half the show.
Still, I’m glad Dwarf bothered with a plot this week. Though to be brutally honest, the fact that this episode ended up being so interesting surprised me. From the teasers we were getting, with items not created by M-Corp becoming invisible, it seemed like we might be getting something akin to “grumpy old man complains about DRM”, which gave me awful flashbacks of “grumpy old man complains about health and safety”, or “grumpy old man complains about phone support lines and also shopping channels and gets everything a little confused”. What we got was far more interesting, and far more expansive.
Admittedly, I don’t think the episode was interesting necessarily because of what it said. I’m not especially sure there was a huge amount of insight about the nature of big corporations here. But then, what insight is there in an episode like Meltdown? It’s a brilliant episode, but the anti-war sentiments are surface at best, and not especially useful. Lister’s anti-war speech is great, but the episode is somewhat lacking in the “here’s what the crew should have done instead” stakes.
Here, we have much the same. A satire of big corporations and consumerism… but the fun here isn’t really in what the episode says about it. In fact, all it really says is “hey, be careful, big corporations haven’t always got your best interests at heart”. Yeah, no shit. But it’s the way the episode says this which makes it fun. And Doug is at his absolute best when riffing off ideas like this. Take our first introduction to Lister’s artificial assistant:
ANITER: There are five life packages. Platinum, Gold, Silver, Basic, and Basic Lite. With the credits available to you Dave, you are eligible to purchase Basic Lite.
LISTER: The worst one? I’m on that life package already.
The beautiful thing about the above, of course, is that you get to do your parody of a consumer society… and then Lister’s line drags it right back to a joke about his situation. At every turn, this episode still manages to be about character. For all that Twentica and Cured were about big ideas, I often felt those episodes fell short in this regard. Not here. I don’t think Craig’s had better material to play throughout this episode since 1993, and his performance is raised accordingly. I felt more invested in Lister as a character than for years.
Still, while we’re on this section of the episode, I guess we’d better talk about… that moment.
ANITER: The average man speaks 7000 words per day. The average woman speaks 20,000.
I think the frustrating thing about the line is that it fails to work in so many different ways. For a start, it isn’t true. It perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes, without even being the saving grace of being funny. It has unfortunate echoes of past unpleasantness in modern-day Dwarf that at least some of us are thoroughly sick of. And perhaps most of all, it’s tired, lazy, “lol, men and women are so different!!!1111” comedy, where the episode is doing so much more of interest elsewhere. And when Lister cocks his head, in that oh-so-irritating “yeah, figures” expression, I want to punch him in the face.
It’s not the only false note in the episode. I can only assume Rimmer did a holo-shit in Cat’s Krispies first thing that morning, as the two constantly snipe at each other throughout the episode. Sadly, none of the jokes especially land, and all they do is remind me of past episodes when they did. It’s the single most frustrating thing about Dave-era Red Dwarf, and nothing makes me want to switch off more. There’s a thin line between seeing our characters behave like how we expect, and seeing them perform a faded facsimile of past glories, and this material just feels like the latter to me.
Enough moaning. Far, far more about this episode is delightful. Moreover, nearly all of it is linked thematically. Chippy is, of course, MED-I-BOT done correctly (and witness his extremely amusing movements when trying to get down Lister’s arteries – a comic performance in itself) – but is also a neat parody of fitness trackers and the like. We have M-Corp’s bland promotional video. We have the beautiful visage of the M-Corp’s virtual integrated environment suddenly being overrun by Apple Geniuses. And best of all, we have the ultimate development of Lister paying for everything he needs in time – “it’s the most valuable commodity in the universe”. Everything feels just right – every idea leads on logically from the previous one. In a series which has had its fair share of bizarre logical leaps – I’m still trying to figure out the last 10 minutes of Siliconia – the episode just feels immensely satisfying.
Well, up to a point. As we get to the crew’s escape from the clutches of the evil M-Corp, maybe we do begin to slip into one of the recurring problems with XI and XII – slightly unsatisfying endings. Kryten purchasing a virus to shut the company down is a clever idea, and perhaps comes the closest to the episode making an interesting point: how raw capitalism can end up harming itself. Sadly, it’s done so ludicrously quickly that it just feels a little disappointing. Moreover, it’s perhaps a little hard to believe that the company would leave such a huge security hole open. But – for once – I’ll let it pass, if only because the episode doesn’t waste much time anywhere else. The episode doesn’t fail here because it’s dicking around with stuff which doesn’t matter. It fails because it’s pushing at the very limits of what you can do in half an hour.
Which is ironic. I will defend audience sitcom with my dying breath… but here, M-Corp feels like it’s straining at the boundaries of the traditional half-hour format. Red Dwarf doesn’t have a good record with multi-part episodes… but dare I suggest the show these days might end up working better as a 45 minute episode, filling a commercial hour-long slot? There are easily enough things you could do with an episode like M-Corp which might not suit a two-parter, but could comfortably fill 45 minutes. Who knows, perhaps the additional time could have helped Mechocracy and Siliconia have endings which, well, actually work.
And as for our final moments with a 23-year old Lister… all I can think of is a certain scene in Back in the Red, with Lister aghast at the newly-recreated Rimmer: “It’s you like you used to be.” But unlike repeated jokes with Cat and his various hair styling implements, this feels like Doug has taken an idea which was fudged in the past, and done it right. What the joke needs is clarity, and the exact Rimmer we got in VIII was never made especially clear. In M-Corp, the version of Lister we’re seeing is never in any doubt.
Which really sums the episode up. All too often, Dave-era Red Dwarf feels to me like a pale imitation of what has come before. Repeated jokes, repeated ideas, repeated character beats, all done with less panache than they were originally. Tired Cat/Rimmer dynamic aside, M-Corp did stuff the show has never done before, did it well, and finished up by rescuing an idea they did badly the first time round.
Plus, the moment where Lister runs out of words and mimes his request for more is simply one of the funniest pieces of performing Craig Charles has ever done in the series. Not just in the Dave era. But full stop.
Can the show be like this every week, please?
TINY TEASER: Chippy (The “health monitoring mate” injected into Lister’s bloodstream)
ACTUAL SCENE COUNT: 23 (Total so far: 104)
ACTUAL SMEG COUNT: 3 (Total so far: 8)